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Dune: Part Two: the good, the bad, and the spicy

A great director and crew, source material vital to its genre, a cast consisting of some of the most marketable actors in current Hollywood. Oh, and popcorn bucket memes. With the benefit of hindsight, Dune Parts One and Two appear to have been tailor made to explode at the box office, combining those increasingly rare elements of proven talent, love of the craft, marketability, and lots and lots of money. The films have its critics, both fans and non-fans alike, but Part Two alone has made a hundred thousand weights of water in the box office over the last month. Let’s talk about it.

Written in 1965 by Frank Herbert, Dune would come to influence the science fiction genre in its own sandy way. A journalist by trade, Herbert was inspired to write the story after studying sand dunes near Florence, Oregon. The dunes were threatening to consume the town’s infrastructure as the sand approached it, being carried through violent coastal winds. 

The sand would be blown onto farms, buildings and roads in a slow, wave-like apocalypse. The US Department of Agriculture attempted to curtail this by planting European grass at the edges of the coast, their strong roots stopping the flow of sand from reaching the town. A little bit like terraforming, in a way. In writing Dune, Herbert would draw from these interests he had gained through his experiences as a journalist. He also spent time writing speeches for a United States congressman, a source of inspiration for the political side of the story, and the notion of dangerous, popular leaders.

Although it took some time for a wider audience to start reading the book, Herbert would eventually join the ranks of Mary Shelley, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, names who had defined the genre for decades past. It is a science-fiction story of environmentalism and ecology, the perils of leadership and religion, written with such a depth of worldbuilding and originality that it can be as impenetrable as the hide of Shai-Hulud upon a first read. 

Physical copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965)

All the more a miracle, then, that a film in the modern era has adapted this monster of a text, and that it is good. As a huge fan of the source material, I find that those without experience of the book seem to be enjoying it more than those who do. But with a cool $600 million box office gross in just over a month, there’s no denying that Dune has entered a wider cultural context which, for many years, appeared far beyond the realm of possibility.

The first half of the book was, for me, almost incomprehensible at parts. Herbert was rejected by dozens of publishers, with some citing their inability to get past the first 100 pages. He doesn’t waste a lot of time explaining CHOAM, the Bene Gesserit, the Landsraad, et cetera. As you read, things start to piece themselves together. It’s one of the only fictional books that I would compare to the process of learning a language. By the time the second half begins, you as a reader can understand. It’s one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life.

In the films, terms like Kwizatz Haderach, Gom Jabbar, Hunter-Seeker are thrown at us constantly; there’s a little more initial explanation than in the books, but I still remember the confused faces of my family as the first fifty minutes of Part One sand-walked by. The Atreides battle-language is also communicated visually, and the ‘slow blade penetrates the shield’ given a brief moment and never expressed again in dialogue. Director Denis Villeneuve is an extremely effective visual storyteller, and there exists a filmic language that you understand more as the saga goes on. Just like the book.

Dune: Part Two carries on where we left off, bringing us back to Arrakis with all of its spicy, far-future weirdness. The Lady Jessica and her Bene Gesserit sisters are a cornerstone of its political intrigue, and take a central role, with Zendaya’s Chani having far more impact on Paul. In this second half, the power dynamics between the Great Houses, as well as Fremen culture, become much more prevalent and related to our main character. 

Villeneuve and his team have created a story which tells us a lot of the subtext Herbert put into his book. And it is truly epic. To see things you imagined while reading the book, never really understanding how someone could translate these things to the screen. The action scenes are phenomenal and, like the book, brief. Everything looks utterly fantastic, massive in scale and, yes, very expensive.

To be clear, a high budget does not a good movie make. Look at Godzilla Minus One if we are talking about high bars of visual effects/filming things that aren’t real. But for Hollywood cinema at least, Dune: Part Two is operating at a scale of budget that you will not be granted unless you have a very good reason. Villeneuve has earned this, it seems, despite how little his Blade Runner 2049 made at the box office. Because the higher up the budget ladder you go, the more fingers get put in your filmic pie, significantly raising the expectations for the final product, and this can often lead to interference where it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, this is still evidenced in both of his Dune films.

Look at Dune as it is; not the action adventure epic sci-fi blockbuster that Part Two is selling itself as, but an allegorical look at themes of environmentalism, identity, power and culture. It is centred on Paul, one who eventually sees the future and is merely trying to navigate his way through it. He is not a willing hero or leader for a lot of this story, and it is about the consequences that come with that. 

While Villeneuve has clearly done his best and in my opinion a really good job at communicating these things, at other points they appear directly contradictory. There are several changes which would spoil the story to discuss here, but in my opinion they essentially shift entire contexts of certain characters and story beats. For better or for worse is up to you to decide, but personally some of them left a dry taste in my mouth. 

As well as that, the first movie isn’t the entire first half of the book. It cuts just over a hundred or so pages before that. And you feel that within the film; Part One had so much ground to cover it feels like it preemptively gave up on a lot of it, slaughtering the arcs of certain characters (Yueh in particular) and Part Two continues this trend (NAME REDACTED FOR SPOILERS), with even more story which had to be told. 

A lot of this arises from restrictions that a filmmaker has at this budget. You can’t just make Dune as a film. It would be dozens of hours long, and nobody would watch it. It is a story structurally different to what we are used to in any era of film, and so there has to be some sort of translation. Of course, it somewhat disappointed me because I wished it was something else. But ultimately, I enjoyed the narrative with its changes, and I found myself (especially on the second watch) trying to pretend I didn’t know the story of Dune and just experiencing it, upon which I had much more fun. 

Possibly my biggest problem, though, is with the aesthetics of each planet that we see. When reading the books, I imagined Arrakis as bustling with activity, everything covered from the sun, of course, but there is culture in Arrakeen. In the desert there are hidden sietches (Fremen settlements) full of character and life and vibrancy, water-sellers and incense merchants hawking their products on the shaded streets of the city and the lanes of the sietch alike.

In the films, everything is too clean and sanitised. On one hand, I loved the idea of everything being underground, hidden from the sun. But then why is the underground also devoid of life? This was slightly improved in Part Two, but not really. 

Sietch Tabr has interesting details on its walls, but it looks as if the Fremen just hang around talking in vast, open rooms with no furniture, or glowglobes, family heirlooms, carpeting, decoration…I could go on. They show the importance of water fairly well when they are in the desert, but in the Sietch it doesn’t seem to play much of a role. 

The Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime is visually astonishing in its infrared photography, but the same thing there; the Harkonnens are gluttons and hedonists of the highest order, yet their palaces have as much colour as the black sun. The Atreides homeworld of Caladan or the Imperial Capital of Kaitan fulfil this the most of the as-yet shown planets due to having some natural features, but even they were too empty and clean for my liking. 

Every single scene looks visually astonishing on camera, shot in a way that is pure atmosphere and eye candy. But I hoped for more stuff within the scenes, to fill out the world some more and show how different each culture was. It’s not a huge deal, as the film looks gorgeous. It is just a different interpretation artistically. But it did strike a chord in me as it was almost the opposite of what I imagined, and it gives some of the locations and cultures a hollow, samey feeling. 

Villeneuve has been very vocal about not liking the idea of an extended cut, and I think that he needs to change his mind on that one. Differently to The Lord of the Rings, I think these films need an extended version. To be fair, the theatrical cut is an incredible entrypoint to the Imperium, and the film obviously would’ve been less profitable if it ran too long. It is well paced and really most of what you need to know.  

But like Peter Jackson’s epic, there should be a slightly longer cut for those who really want the full story of Dune as more akin to the book. It won’t solve that little issue of how it looks for me, but there are script pages out there of cut content from Part One, and some really could have fleshed out some of the characters like Dr. Yueh, without adding that much to the runtime. I think they would solve a lot of the other problems I had with the first film within thirty more minutes. Also, Thufir. All I’m gonna say. 

Maybe I’m assuming this isn’t Villeneuve’s perfect vision too strongly. But as a fan, I can only see an extended version making sense, and making me like the movies more. Because the only real problems I have with these movies, much like Paul Muad’Dib Atreides, are that there isn’t enough time.  

Going forward, Villeneuve has expressed interest in adapting Nuclear War: A Scenario, Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, as well as a Cleopatra biopic with Zendaya starring, before he returns to the plains of Arrakis. His Dune Messiah movie, based on the 1969 sequel to the original book, will, if Part Two says anything about it, continue the trend of being different to the books. But I think for me, it boils down to two things; One, this is a great adaptation of one of a lot of people’s favourite books. Two, it comes so close to perfection as a fan that the disappointments stand out so much stronger. While I still believe Dune is a story perfectly fit for the medium of animation, where it could really let its freak flag fly, this adaptation does a fantastic job regardless of its problems. 

It isn’t that I think that I could make a better movie, no chance. I see how much the director loves this story as I do, and I imagine he was heartbroken at some of the changes he had to make, as much as I wanted them in the film. With the money this film cost, with this director at the helm, with soundtrack, editing, casting, costuming and acting masters in the gang all seemingly caring about making these movies good, it did so much of what Dune fans wanted. Though I do think Christopher Walken was not a good Emperor Shaddam IV. 

Dune was dependent on a litany of things for it to be made. You need big names in roles for them to make money. Also pacing, how ‘talky’ the film can be, how much action there’s expected. All of these things have to make sense, and the context is specific to each movie made within their respective budget.  In that sense, I love it regardless of the things I wish were different. The second one has done so well in terms of culture, criticism and finances alike that Dune appears viable for a franchise. This can be a good or bad thing, of course, but a fan can only be excited.  Dune is a story I adore, for many reasons. And Shai-Hulud has blessed us for it to be seen like this. 

For me, it is also that reminder that comes along once in a while; audiences of ‘blockbuster cinema’ just want to see something good. They want to immerse themselves in character, story, visuals, and sound all at once, experiencing something they enjoy. Simple, right? I’m sure Hollywood won’t learn all the wrong lessons from Dune: Part Two’s success…